Black Earth Rising has finally ended, after a massive 8 weeks. For me, it was well worth every second I spent watching each hour long episode. The acting was superb. Every actor was absolutely on point. There was not a false moment. Such a strong female cast. My personal favourites… Every scene with Michaela Coel. The power trio. Lucian Msamati. Noma Dumezweni. Abena Ayivor. A ‘cameo’ from Wale Ojo as the refugee Doctor, Tamara Tunie as the gynaecologically oversharing Eunice Clayton…To reiterate, all the acting was on point, but I was also impressed by the special, though brief, screen visit from the director himself Hugo Blick, as the deliciously malicious lawyer, Blake Gaines.
I have been a massive fan of Hugo Blick since I watched The Honourable Woman. I almost died from the suspense of watching that one. His work in this one is incomparable. [A lot of talk has gone on as to why BER (Black Earth Rising) was not on BBC 1. We all have our suspicions which are underlined by the content of the series itself… ironically enough.] The setting, especially the scenes set in Africa – mostly Rwanda and Congo – are so beautiful. They do not have the staged-Africanish look we have gotten used to with films set in Africa but really filmed in South America or Florida. Maybe, it is because I am African, have actually lived in Africa, but the scenery felt so recognisable. (PS: BER was partly filmed in Ghana). When Kate is walking to the market in Sankele, it might has well been me travelling off-road to Koro-Lolle. The mountains looked like my mountains (yes, I have mountains) in Lokoja or Olle Bunu. When Kate throws up by the roadside in Kigali, the motorbikes parked there might as well have been the okadas at Tipper Garage, Ilorin. And the final confrontation between David and Bibi might as well have taken place at Sports Centre, OAU, Ile-Ife. It felt like my Africa. Not Toto’s Africa. Not Band Aid’s Africa. Not gap yah Africa. But my Africa. A real place, not an exotic fantasy where Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus (I don’t even know what that means, wallahi!)
Ok, spoiler alert time. Seriously, if you have not watched Black Earth Rising yet… first, if you have access to it – WHY? HAVE? YOU? NOT? WATCHED? EET? But please go and watch it. Abeg. So, Baba spoilers is on vacation, here is his locum:
Yes. There WILL be major spoilers from now on.
So, as is my custom, this is a thematic review. I will be exploring 3 themes that I consider to be of vital importance. BER is such a layered drama. And you can tell that from the very beginning. BER opens with a student at Eve Asby’s talk asking her if the work of the ICC is just another neo-colonialist manoeuvre in Africa (Paapa Essiedu has so very limited screen time, but he makes gut-punching impact). And so, there are multiple stories to uncover here. And so BER brings us the big story of Africa – focused in this case on Rwanda and DRC – placed in context of Africa’s relationship with the West. Then there is the other big story. The Rwandan genocide of 1994. Some of us are old enough to remember the CNN coverage. And the deafening sounds of the world’s silence. There have been many cinematic tellings of how 800 000 people were killed in less than 100 days. And I have written about the genocide many times. For example, here and here. But BER places its exacting lens on the lingering aftermath of the genocide on individual lives. Demonstrating very clearly that trauma lives on, hidden or denied. Showing us that where there is trauma, there is responsibility, there is effect. The fingers of yesterday are not easily detached from tomorrow. The chaff we throw up into the air will eventually come back to the ground and land… maybe in our eyes. And then there is Kate’s story of law, justice and home. And that is the first theme I explore. Home.
As the central character, quirky and unsure, irreverent and insistent, Kate is the lost child of genocide. She loves her adopted mother, Eve, but there is something quietly mournful about how much of herself she does not know. In that last shouting match with her mother before Eve goes away and has her head blown off, Kate yells at her, ‘I don’t even know my own name!!!’ Think about that. Think about that. From when she is rescued, as a child and till the end of her days, her name is lost to her. She thinks she is Tutsi, but it turns out she is Hutu. Lost child. When Kate and Florence sit down for dinner, on their first night in Kigali, the counterpoint between them is marked. He knows his name. He knows he is home, but he is unsettled. He cannot be comfortable. A former child soldier, child of genocidaires. He does not think he can be forgiven. For Florence, home will always be out of reach. A place known but unattainable. And you can feel this in his strange accent (well done to the actor, Emmanuel Imani, for nailing that btw), not really American, not really Congolese, not really Rwandan. For Florence Karamera, home is a dangerous spirit, home is a restless soul. Like a life expelled from its body before its time, Florence Karamera cannot come home to rest.
This contrast between Kate and Florence is played out again at the mass grave site at Sankele. Florence knows his name, but not where he is from. Not exactly. Kate does not know her name, but she knows where she is from – Sankele. Florence leaves, saying he must find his own way home. Will he? Can he?… Kate stays…. She is home, but she is not home. Apart from the brief flashback she has of her father (?) and a recognition of her trauma being common place in Kigali… she is not really home. Home is a mass of contradictions… wet and affluent London, and also, warm and wide open Sankele. She is nowhere she really remembers. But she fits. Her blood was shed at Sankele and in the scrap of clothing Alice gives her in episode 2, Kate’s blood returns to the place it was shed. The circle closes, but the circle has taken too many detours to be perfect. And so it is Kate Ashby who returns to Sankele. For Kate Ashby, home is a dangerous spirit, home is a restless soul. Like a heart forever torn in two, she is too much for everywhere and never enough for anywhere. She is never home.
Truth And Reconciliation
My first awareness of truth and reconciliation as a post-conflict measure, comes from watching the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sittings on television circa 1996. A TRC is a very pragmatic concept after large scale violence, as Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda) explains to Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York):
‘How do you pursue justice when the crime is so great? You can’t lose one million people in one hundred days without an equal number of perpetrators. But we also can’t imprison an entire nation. So forgiveness was the only way forward.’
However as events in post-TRC South Africa, Bolivia, Argentina, Chad, Philippines and the stories in BER show… without complete truth, there can be no genuine reconciliation. The saying that truth is like the sun is a lie. You cannot bury the sun, but you can bury the truth. In BER, the truth is metaphorically and literally buried. The truth is complex, yet we seek simple stories of saints and sinners, but there have never been such easy lines in history. And BER shows this. We are never either angel or demon, but often the hands of angels take it upon themselves to do devilish work, and an evil hand may sometimes do good. But until the truth is completely unburied, reconciliation of humanity will continue to rest uneasy under the earth of secrecy with which it has been interred, the stench of suppression will always reach out to us. Suffocating us. Dragging us down and back into the earth.
And so we must exhume the truth, expose it to the light, and then it does become like the sun – shining. If not, we will continue to revisit the carcass of humanity’s hatred, the indignity of indifference. And no matter how many times we are told to move on, forget, forgive… the hidden truths will sit festering beneath the earth, accusatory silences dragging us back to horrible yesterdays. As Michael Ennis says, maybe it is guilt that made all the BER characters sick. Everyone is throwing up, in hospital, suffering, trying to outrun death, but yesterday’s ghosts will always run faster than you ever could. The horrors we created in the past await us in the future.
“The past is not dead, it is not even past.” – William Faulkner
So, until we uncover the truth, acknowledge it, accept it… we are not past the trauma, the trauma has not died. We have merely quietened the screams, but we will hear them when we sleep. Sometimes our deadened conscience pricks us, we become uncomfortable and we assert our ‘goodness’ to assuage our guilt. To assuage our complicity in the silence that perpetuates and makes permanent historical and contemporary trauma. Not matter how loudly we shout over the silence, put our hands over our ears so we do not hear the soundless screams, we will not get over what is not over. Without truth, there will be no moving on. Without truth, there will be no forgiveness. Without truth – complete and full – there will be no reconciliation.
In a lecture given by Dr Olivia Rutazibwa on Decolonising International Development, she describes how knowledge producers have the tendency to fragment knowledge. For example, in international development we often frame ID practitioners as problem-solvers only, without telling how the problems are created. In doing so, she says, we forget to mention that the fire-fighters are mostly also the pyromaniacs. And in every single episode of BER, the entrenchedness of external actors with the internal politics of African states is illustrated, till we get a huge lightning brigade of pyromaniacs. The student who alludes to neocolonial entanglement in the work of the ICC; the imperial history that enabled the genocide; the imperial present that wished the mass grave to remain buried; the capitalist aims that caused some to be tried and others to be virtually ignored…until a carcass is dropped on their front door. Which language is spoken in court during Alice’s hearing – think about it, a trial of an African, about happenings in Africa, in the context of an African trauma… and the feigned slights are about whether French or English is being spoken. No one even considers for a moment, for a second… that Alice may want to speak in Kinyarwanda. Pyromaniacs.
The ease with which Jacques Antoine Barre presumes dominance over African bodies and lives, the ease with which he tells his lies. Because only his lives matter. Never African bodies. Never those. (In the end he shoots his brains out, splattering the map of Africa with his blood) The indifference of Kromin, and the US and UK politicians to the buried bodies. But, the most telling pyromanical conversation does not involve loud gunfire and ballast or blood or gore. It is conducted in the quiet Kigali night and it is full of resignation and despair. When David Runihara and Bibi Mundazi part ways, their final conversation reveals the almost futile lie of development.
DR: They don’t want this IP, tech hubs, conference centres!
BM: Who cares what the mzungu wants? We have reached all our goals.
DR: But how long before they outstrip us again?
BM: 7% growth. Poverty levels below 30! Two-thirds drop in child mortality. Universal primary education. All of that, me! Me!
DR: And over 70% of us still in the fields….What is in the ground! That is all they really want. And we should let them have it, but on our terms.
BM: It was on our terms. I chose the terms!
DR: How could you? How? How could any of us, when 40% of our budget comes from them?! And as long as it stays like that, they control everything!
A summary of post-colonial Africa played out in a quick moment of high drama. Firefighters. And pyromaniacs. One and the same.
The series takes us by the hand and gives us a close and personal look, so, we see that what happened in 1994 was not a moment of madness, it was not an aberration due to some particularity in the water. It was built on a history for which there were many complicit agents. We see clearly the pyromaniacs and firefighters as they merge into one. We realise that we who live in yesterday’s future, have a responsibility to be true to yesterday. As we build tomorrow’s history we have a responsibility to permanently excavate the past, so that when those who arrive after us come home, there will be something for them to return to. So that when the Black Earth finally Rises and we discover what is uncovered, it will not be blood and bones…but hope and triumph. Ase.